Eating my words

Today a friend offered constructive criticism. I was making an announcement and offered assistance with “housing and employment”. I have done this thousands of times. I use my deep loud voice to be heard above the small talk in the room, usually over 50 people waiting for their groceries at a food bank. I speak slowly, I smile, and I make eye contact. Most of the people know my name and why I am there. I feel welcome and feel comfortable welcoming others.

I also invite guests to these foodbanks, staff at agencies that specifically offer the assistance with employment and housing. Having done this for 8 years I have heard some staff do this exceeding well and the net effect is that the guests feel comfortable approaching them with their questions. I have also heard my share of “We are here to assist you clients to interface with modules that will enhance your skill set. We are proud to be one of the community stakeholders involved in this important work.” Where do I start!!! No guest is going to approach someone who offered that greeting.

The key is to speak the language of the people you are addressing. It is not so much watering down the message as it is using appropriate wording for the context you are in. Why wouldn’t someone with an important message want to be understood, why wouldn’t we want to do what is necessary so those listening to us absorb our intentions?

And yet…most of us continue to use the language of our comfort zone, talking to others like they are us, assuming they will get our examples and phrases, the terminology that is common to our profession and friends. The net effect of this poor effort is that few of us break through the demographics we embody, few of us meet and know people different than ourselves, and few of us know the other beyond the stereotypes and generalizations we have created to label each other.

I have made this point to various audiences, it has become my rant, and it is in a real sense my critique of the non-profit sector. There are people who hear me go down this road and begin to brace themselves for another poke at those who talk of “stakeholders” and “best practices”.

If only these people were in my friend’s office today when he gently offered a critique of my standard announcement. “When you introduce yourself, when you reference your offer to help with employment and housing why don’t you simply say that you can help persons find a place to live, a job where they can work.” It donned on me that some will find language like employment and housing somewhat abstract but talk of a place to live and a job will be direct and personal. It was exactly what I needed to hear.

It was a deliciously irony that the one who lectures others on inaccessible language was critiqued on his own abstract words. Guilty as charged!